Tag Archives: Plato - Page 2

The Ethics of Porn

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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Reading Euthyphro

I need your help!

I was in Starbucks reading Plato’s Euthyphro, as one does if one wants to fake erudition in the hope of attracting any passing intellectual women, men or goats.

Anyway, I’ve got to say it’s not an easy read – at least, I don’t find it so. I was doing okay, until I came to this section:

Soc. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Is not that which is loved in some state either of becoming or suffering?

Euth. Yes.

I have a couple of questions here.

First: Is Plato using the word “becoming” in some special sense here?

Second: Why on earth does Euthyphro respond “Yes” to Socrates’s last question? Why would he (or Socrates, or Plato) think that that which is loved is in a state of suffering (or “becoming”, for that matter)?

Any advice gratefully and humbly received, because at the moment I’m baffled, which rather undermines the whole wishing to appear erudite thing.

Darth VaPaula, Gender and Video Games

Star Wars: The Old Republic

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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Guardians of the future – Your chance to try it out

Reader of TP may already be familiar with my ‘guardians for future generations’ proposal. James Garvey gave a nice account of his evneing at the Parliamentary launch of the idea, here: http://jamesgarveyactually.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/guardians-of-the-future/
If you want to have a read of my speech that evening, you can do so by going to: http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2012/02/parliamentary-launch-of-my-greenhouse.html
[And here is the message of support for the proposal from the world’s foremost official rep. of future generations anywhere in the world, the Hungarian Ombudsman for Future Generations: http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2012/01/green-house-report-on-guardians-for.html ]
My reason for writing today is to let readers know that there will be an opportunity to come and not only debate this idea in person, but to have a mini-trial at the concept itself. I.e. We will STAGE a micro-mock-version of the guardians ‘super-jury’ concept, at the public meeting that will take place on April 25th, at 6.15pm, at King’s Place in London, in the Scott Room. Also speaking alongside me that evening will be Polly Higgins, on her proposal to make the prevention of ecocide part of international law.
Do come along! The meeting is hosted by the GUARDIAN newspaper, and I’m sure that a good time will be had by all… This will, hopefully, be philosophy in the public sphere in action… (James Garvey will be on the panel too, btw.)

Mediums & Muses

Hypnotic seance

Image via Wikipedia

As I do every spring, I am teaching  my Aesthetics class. As might be expected, one of the subjects I address is the nature of artistic creativity and the creation of the arts. Putting things rather simply (perhaps too simply) one classic issue is whether or not artistic creativity is predominantly a product of reason (the head) or emotion (the heart). As also might be expected, I make use of Plato’s classic Ion and Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” to provide a foundation for the discussion.

Since I teach this class every spring, I am always looking at new ways to present the material-both to improve the class and to fend off the dullness that can come from the seemingly eternal recurrence of teaching the same class. This year I was fortunate to find an interesting addition to the discussion albeit one from the past. To be specific, I ran across the story of Patience Worth in the Smithsonian magazine.

Patience Worth was an author who was very active between 1913 and 1937. She wrote books, such as The Sorry Tale,  and poetry.  She was lauded during her time. Or, to be more accurate, about three centuries after her time. After all, Miss Worth apparently died in an Indian raid  on Nantucket Island in the 1600s.  Worth apparently managed to pull of this remarkable literary feat by  communicating through Pearl Curran, a seemingly otherwise normal St. Louis housewife. While Miss Worth was remarkably successful, having the dead speaking through the living was not all that uncommon during the early 1900s: spiritualism was all the rage and mediums could check up on the dead almost as easily as people check their friends’ Facebook statuses today. What was unusual about Miss Worth is, of course, her success as an author.

While many people took the spiritual explanation at face value, some people were more critical and sought alternative explanations for this (alleged) phenomena. One explanation put forth was the idea of multiple personalities, namely that Patience Worth was merely one of Curran’s personalities and that this personality possessed the creative imagination that Curran alleged lacked.

Interestingly, this explanation fits rather nicely with what Plato says in the Ion:

When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem.

While Plato does not explicitly claim that Ion has multiple personality disorder, what he describes does seem somewhat similar (perhaps with some past life regression thrown in for good measure). Given that authors routinely create different sorts of characters in their works, the idea that they are tapping into multiple personalities in their own mind is not wildly implausible and it seems even more plausible when actors take on such roles (as Aristotle argued, actors do seem to be out of their right minds).

Of course, the multiple personality hypothesis does have some weak points as theory of creativity. After all, having numerous personalities does not explain why any one of them would be creative and the basic question of the origin of creativity would seem unanswered.

Interestingly enough, the noted critic Walter Prince (who, like Harry Houdini, often exposed fake mediums) concluded that Curran lacked the knowledge and ability to produce the works in question and concluded, after a lengthy investigation, that “some cause” had to be operating through Curran.

Assuming that Prince had not been duped, his basic approach seems reasonable: if Curran lacked the ability to produce the writing she was producing, then there had to be some other cause. While the idea that a dead woman was speaking through Curran seems to be, to say the least, far-fetched, it is no crazier than the explanation put forth by Plato in the Ion: “And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. ” As Plato saw it, it is the muses who speak through the poets and their artistic creativity is not actually their own, but rather that of the gods. This is a bit more dramatic than channeling a dead human, but the idea that there is a supernatural cause behind artistic creativity is common to both.

It is, as an aside, interesting to note that Plato did not ascribe philosophical creativity or ability to such divine possessions. Of course, he did seem to hold that philosophical understanding was acquired by somehow communing with the forms while one is between lives (that is, dead). As such, Plato does consistently ascribe supernatural foundations to both artistry and philosophy. Not surprisingly, he does regard the philosophic as vastly superior (as he argues in Book X of the Republic).

Getting back to the main issue, the medium hypothesis for creativity (and Plato’s Muse hypothesis) mainly serves to push the question back. After all, if ordinary Curran’s creativity is explained in terms of Worth’s creativity (or a poet’s creativity is explained in terms of the Muses), then the foundation of Worth’s creativity (and the Muses’ creativity) would still be in need of explanation. This, supernaturally enough, creates the threat of an infinite regress in which any agent of creativity must in turn have its creativity explained. While such a regress can be stopped, it must be stopped in a principled manner-that is, a plausible and adequately defended foundation of creativity must be reached. In the case of the Worth hypothesis, Curran’sc creativity is accounted for, but not Worth’s.  As such, the medium and Muse hypotheses seem to be incomplete. I do not, unfortunately, have the completion on hand.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Patience Worth is that Curran simply made her up. After all, this explanation fits rather nicely with Hume’s discussion of miracles and it seems much more probably that Curran was fabricating rather than channeling. After all, it is well established that people fabricate and not well established that the dead continue to exist and can be channeled to write books. This explanation does not, however, help at all to explain creativity-but it does give an excellent example of double creativity: an author who creates another author to create her works.

Perhaps I will solve this problem next year. Or next life.

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The Real

As a professor (and even worse, a philosophy professor) I have become accustomed to people talking about the real world as a land far from the ivory tower in which I am supposed to dwell. Naturally I, and folks who are supposed to be like me, are not supposed “to get” how the real world works. Thanks to Sarah Palin and others, I have also grown familiar with the idea of a Real America, which is also presumably a place where I do not live. Not surprisingly, all this talk of the real got me thinking.

When folks accuse me, as a professor, of not being in the real world I tend to smile a bit. After all, there is a certain irony in accusing a philosophy professor of being far from the real world or not “getting” the way the real world works. This is because, obviously enough, of Plato’s famous discussion of the distinction between the lovers of wisdom (philosophers) and the lovers of sights and sounds. For Plato, the true philosophers were the ones who deal with the real.  The real for Plato is, of course, those mysterious forms. The other folks, those who seem to now claim to be the kings of the real, were characterized as merely playing with images and opinions.

Naturally, talking about Platonic forms and other philosophical stuff does little to convince folks that I  do not live many zip codes removed from the real world. As such, it seems like a reasonable approach to set aside talk about unseen realities and take a somewhat different approach.

One reasonable approach involves considering what is supposed to distinguish the real world from the sort of world that I and other philosopher types are supposed to reside.

On the face of it, my “world” seems to be just as real as the “world” of the folks who accuse me of keeping it unreal. After all, the buildings seem solid enough as do the people around me. I do work, I get paid, I interact with people, and do the things that other folks do. As such, my “world” just seems to be part of the world, rather than an unreal realm distinct from the allegedly real world.

But, someone might say, you philosopher types deal with things that are not real. You live in books, talk about made up ideas and so on. In the real world we deal with real things.

One obvious reply is that the “real” world contains an abundance of made up ideas and other such things that are supposed to be part of the unreal world. To use an obvious example, consider politics. As another obvious example, consider the financial system. The so-called real world seems no more (or no less) real than the world of philosophers and other academic folk.

But, suppose that I am willing to accept that the “world” I occupy is not the same as the “real” world. That is, that there are differences between what I do in my professional life and what, for example, people who are bankers, construction workers, engineers, financial planners, bureaucrats, priests, and so on do. There is still the obvious question as to why their “way of life” should be considered real and mine should be considered unreal.

This would seem to take us to the old saw that philosophy in particular and intellectual endeavors in general are useless. The real world is the world in which people bake, build and kill rather than think, talk and write. However, this seems to be a mere prejudice on par with intellectuals looking down on those who bake and build for not discussing Proust over lattes in the cafe. These “worlds” seem to all be quite real. I see the value in being able to repair a two stroke engine (having done it myself), cook a fine steak (or tofu) or put a round through a person’s head at 800 meters (haven’t done that, but could). I can also see the value in being able to consider various moral views, speculate on the nature of the universe or do mathematical proofs.

This is not to say that different professions are not different and that some professions (or specific people) might be less than useful. However, the blanket dismissal via the use of “the real world” seems to have no real substance.

As far as “getting it” or being part of the Real America (or Real Britain or whatever), this seems to be primarily a rhetorical device. Merely saying that someone does not get it or accusing them of not being Real Xs does not prove that they are in error or morally wrong. For example, someone might tell me that I “just don’t get it” when it comes to taxes and government spending because I argue that cutting the deficit requires increasing some taxes and reducing major expenditures, such as defense spending. Obviously enough, no matter how many times someone says that I do not “get how the real world works” or that I am not part of the Real America, he does not show that my view is in error.  What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.

In many cases it seems that accusing someone of “not getting it” or “not understanding the real world” or of not being “real whatever” is merely another way of saying “they don’t believe what I believe” or “they don’t see the world as I see it” or “they do not have the same values as me.” Obviously enough, the mere fact that someone has different beliefs, views or values does not prove that these beliefs, views or values are inferior or mistaken. Of course, the use of such rhetorical devices can be rather effective. After all, the real people want to get it.

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Virtual Violence & Children

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Image via Wikipedia

While there is more than enough real violence in the world, the Supreme Court of the United States is turning its attention to a law suit regarding California’s law that regulates the sale of violent video games to minors.

Being a gamer, I am well aware of the sort of extremely violent content of certain video games. I am also aware that games, like movies, come with a rating that makes it fairly clear as to what sort of content the game features. However, the age based rating system does not actually prevent younger people from buying the game. So, for example, a nine year old could walk into a game store and walk out with a video game rated for mature (17+) audiences and then spend the rest of the day killing virtual hookers and stealing virtual cars. Assuming, of course, that he was allowed to do so by his parent(s) or guardian. Not surprisingly, this possibility does raise some legitimate concerns.

The focal point of the conflict is between free expression and the notion that the state should protect children from possible harm.

On the side of freedom of expression, the concern is that imposing restrictions based on the content of video games would be a form a state censorship and thus an imposition on the legitimate rights of game makers and their customers. Since there are very good arguments for freedom of expression and freedom of consumption (as usual, I defer to Mill here), the case against restricting the sale of violent video games to minors seems to be rather strong.

Of course, those who favor such restrictions can also make a strong case. After all, there are legitimate concerns that violent video games can influence the behavior of children and have other negative consequences. Perhaps the strongest foundation for banning such sales is that children are generally regarded as lacking the same rights as adults when it comes to consuming potentially harmful products. To use some obvious examples, children cannot legally purchase tobacco, alcohol or pornography. If violent video games fall into the category of being harmful and suitable only for adults, the arguments against allowing children to buy smokes, booze and porn can thus be employed against violent video games. In general, a reasonable case can be made that children should be subject to more restrictions than adults-even Mill takes this view. At the very least, children are far less capable of making rational decisions and tend to be more vulnerable than adults (of course, adults can be irrational and vulnerable as well).

One obvious concern is that if censorship is permitted on the basis of violence (something Plato would agree with) then this opens the door to more restrictions. For example, I am looking at the warning label on Wrath of the Lich King and it warns me that in addition to blood and gore the game features suggestive themes and the use of alcohol. Perhaps the next step will be to limit games that have such content. Then the next step might be to restrict movies or even books that mention such things. This is not, of course, a slippery slope argument. Rather, it is a matter of precedent: if the sale of video games can be restricted based on content, then this would seem to extend logically to other media, such as books.

Of course, video games do differ from other media in that they are interactive and this might entail that they have a stronger influence on children. So, for example, being the one to virtually run over hookers in a stolen  car would have more impact than merely reading about a person running over hookers. Or seeing a story on the news about people being killed for real. Or living in a violent world. This interactivity might provide the basis for a relevant difference argument and a way to prevent (if desired) a slide from video games to other media (such as books).

Another avenue that the video game censors have gone down is that of pornography. As noted above, minors cannot legally buy porn. If it is right to ban the sale of porn to kids, then the arguments for this can probably be modified to argue against allowing kids to buy violent video games. Not surprisingly, Plato argues for banning material relating to both violence and lust. His argument, oversimplified a bit, is based on the corrupting influences of such material. Of course, Plato argued for a comprehensive ban and not just a restriction on selling to minors. This does lead to the obvious question: if something is too harmful to sell to children, then might it not be too harmful for adults as well? Of course, the usual counters are that adults should have the liberty to harm themselves (as per Mill) and that adults are better able to resist the nefarious influence of such things (or that it is okay for adults because they are adults).

I am somewhat divided on this issue. On the one hand, I am for freedom of expression and consumption. Hence, my general principle is to oppose such censorship/restriction on the basis of liberty (availing myself of Mill’s arguments). On the other hand, having played video games such as the  Grand Theft Auto games I am aware that some games feature content that strikes  me as inappropriate for kids. For example, a friend once asked me if she should get Grand Theft Auto III for her son. Without hesitation,  I said “no.” My reasoning was that a young kid lacks the intellectual and emotional development needed to confront such violent and sexual content. I did see the irony in this: a person should be mature before playing what might seem like a morally immature game. However, I believe that I gave the right advice and would follow the same approach if I had kids of my own. Not surprisingly, things change a bit when one switches from rights in the abstract to what, for example, your own child will be playing.

There is, however, still the question of what the state should do. After all, there is a distinction between what I would suggest to my friends who have kids and what I would want to be a matter of law. For example, I think that kids should not eat junk food all the time, but I would be against a law banning the sale of junk food to kids. Rather, this is something that the parents (or guardians) should handle. While junk food is not healthy, the danger it poses is not so immediate that the compulsive power of the state is required. Rather, this seems best suited for parental control. In short, the burden of proof rests on those who would extend the power of the state.

In the case of video games, I take a similar view. While I do recognize that video games can (like junk food) things that are not so good, they do not seem to present a clear an immediate health threat that requires the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. Rather, this is a matter that seems to be more suited for parental control.

It might be replied that some children do not have adequate supervision and hence might just buy violent video games and play them. However, I am inclined to be more concerned that the children lack such supervision than with them playing a violent video game. In fact, if that is the worst they do, then things could be far worse.

It might also be argued that children would simply buy such games and play them without their parents being aware of it. Hence, making the sale of such video games illegal would provide an extra barrier between the kids and the content of the games. While this does have some appeal, kids can easily bypass this. After all, if they have their own money to buy video games, they can buy them online or get someone else to buy them. As such, the protection value of such a ban would seem to be rather minimal if the parents are, in effect, unable to supervise their children.

As such, I hold that the sale of such video games should not be restricted by law. However, I do think that making the nature of the content clear so that parents (and others) can make informed choices is a good idea. I also hold that parents should male responsible choices about what games their kids play. Of course, what counts as a responsible choice is a matter for another time.

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Being a Man II: Manly Metaphysics

Herma of Plato, Musei Capitolini, Rome

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In my previous post on this subject, I considered that being a man might be merely a matter of meeting certain social norms. In short, perhaps being a man simply amounts to determining the standards set by the group in question and meeting them.

However, perhaps there is more to being a man than that. Perhaps there are objective elements to being a man. One possibility is that being a man is actually grounded in the nature of reality. That is, being a man is a metaphysical matter.

One way to look at this is to go back to the dispute over universals during the Middle Ages.  To oversimplify things quite a bit, one option was to believe that metaphysical universals are real. Roughly put, this is the view that individuals are grouped into types on an objective basis and this basis is a metaphysical property. So, for example, all men would be men because they instantiate or participate in the universal of man. This sort of view dates back to Plato. There are, of course, many views about the nature of properties. For example, there are trope theories (sometimes refereed to as theories about abstract particulars).

On this sort of view, then being a man would be an objective matter. A person who has the quality in question would thus be a man.  This, if Plato was right, could be a matter of degrees with some men being more men than others. This would be comparable to his account of beauty: objects come in degrees of beauty based on how well they instantiate the form of beauty. On this sort of view, how manly a man is would be an objective manner (although people can, of course, still dispute relative manliness).

This might also not be a simple matter of having a single quality-being a man might also involve having a set of properties and thus be a complex rather than a simple. This is, however, consistent with their being an objective basis to being a man.

The main alternative to this sort of metaphysical realism is known as nominalism. Crudely put, this is the view that individuals are grouped on the basis of names. In short, all men are men because they are called men. This sort of approach is like the one considered in the first blog on the subject.

While there are numerous versions of metaphysical views about the basis on which individuals are grouped into types,the division between there being an objective basis and the denial of such a basis cuts across all the various views. Clearly, whether being a man is objective or subjective is rather important.

On the plus side, this sort of metaphysical realism has a long and established pedigree (with a multitude of supporting arguments). Also, the idea of there being an objective basis to being a man has a certain appeal-if only to provide a foundation for our judgments that goes beyond mere opinion.

On the minus side, the opposition to this approach also has a long and well established pedigree. Also, the idea that being a man involves weird metaphysical entities rather than mundane factors such as character traits or behavior seems to be rather weird. But, of course, weirdness is not a very serious charge in philosophy.  Finally, being told that being a man is a matter of instantiating the property (or properties) of being a man does not go very far in telling a man how he should act should he desire to be a man.  To misquote Aristotle, what we are concerned with is no so much knowledge of men, but what it is to be  a man. Otherwise, our study would be useless.

Thus, while the metaphysics of being a man are of interest, what seems to be of even greater interest is what it actually is to be a man in terms of how one should act.

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Plato’s Werewolf

An 18th century engraving, conveying that weap...

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Put rather simply, a werewolf is a person who has the ability to transform from human form into wolf form (or a hybrid wolf-human form). The werewolf is typically cast as a monster whose taste for human flesh is exceeded only by the amount of fur that he (or she) sheds.

Throughout the years, folks have offered various explanations for the werewolf myths and legends. Some of the scientific ones point to mental illnesses. Those based in the supernatural tend to point towards vague curses. However, my objective is not to hash through these various theories. Rather, I am going to present a completely made up account of the werewolf using Plato‘s theory of forms. This is, of course, not intended to be “serious” philosophy but rather a little Halloween fun.

While there are different interpretations of Plato’s theory of Forms, the general idea is that the Forms are supposed to be eternal, perfect entities that exist outside of space and time. Most importantly, all the particular things in the imperfect realm (that is where we hang out, at least while we are alive) are what they are in virtue of a mysterious participation in the Forms. For example, take a particular being, namely me. On Plato’s view, I would be a man because I participate in the Form of man. Likewise, I am a runner because I participate in that Form as well. And so on, for all my properties.

As is rather evident, the particular things here in this realm lack perfection. For example, while I am obviously damn manly, I am not a perfect Man. Likewise, while I am, according to my mother, a handsome fellow, I obviously do not possess perfect Beauty. Plato explains this lack of perfection, at least in part, by the fact that particulars participate in the Forms in various degrees. He also seems to indicate that a particular entity might participate in “contrasting” Forms. For example, a particular person would participate in both Beauty and Ugliness (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that ugliness would be a Form). Thus, the person’s beauty (or ugliness) is a “mix” of Beauty and Ugliness. Since people can look more or less beautiful (or ugly) over the course of time, this mix can presumably shift or the degree of participation can change.

At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with the werewolf. Not to worry, grab some candy because I am getting to that bit right now.

So, if we assume that a thing is what it is because of its participation in Forms and that the Forms can be “mixed” in a thing (or rather, their instantiations), the werewolves are easy to explain. Plato’s werewolf would be a being that participated in the Form of Man but also the Form of wolf. As such, the being (let us call him “Lon”) would be literally part man and part wolf. When Lon is participating most in the Form of Man, then he would appear (and act) human. However, when the Form of Wolf became dominant, his form and behavior would shift towards that of the wolf.

Since Plato mentions the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave, it seems appropriate that the moon (which reflects the light of the sun) is credited with triggering the transformation from man to wolf. Naturally, I have no idea how this would work; but I also have no real idea how participation was supposed to work either. So, let it be assumed that both work and thus Plato’s werewolf is free to howl this Halloween. Naturally, this sort of werewolf would hunger for wisdom and not human flesh, so be sure to keep some philosophy books on hand, should you run into one of these furry philosophers.

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